Monday, April 27, 2009

Why Nobody Should Ever Change Anything, Ever.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at me over the years is that I only write the same game over and over again. This fills me with bitter, ironic laughter, because of one thing. Whenever I change anything, I get lots of angry E-mail asking me to change it back.

I've learned a lot running this business. Many lessons, most of them learned painfully. And I have gained no more aggravating bit of knowledge than this one:

There is no change you can make to your games, no matter how clearly obvious or beneficial, that will not anger some of your fans.

And a brief corollary:

If the change doesn't make someone angry, it didn't matter.

A Visual Example

My first game, Exile, released in January, 1995, looked something like this:

(Actually, Exile v1.0 had charming creature graphics drawn by my ex-wife and horrible button and interface graphics drawn by me. But it was about the same.)

Our newest game, Geneforge 5: Overthrow, looks like this:

As you can see, I have changed just about everything. Repeatedly. Graphics. Style. Interface. And the game system underneath. Everything has been redone, and, as I learned more, redone again. And while not all of the changes have been beneficial (and were then re-changed in later games), the process has been one of evolution toward betterness.

And every change earned me angry e-mails and lost customers. I've gotten more, "Why have you forsaken me? I am lost to you forever." E-mails from customers than I could ever count. It's a depressing thing to happen when you've been really busting your butt and your budget to bring about improvements. But you have to live with it. You just have to steel yourself and always remember this:

People hate change.

Case Studies From My Own Experience

Here are some hugely beneficial (and profitable) changes I made which earned me fury and lost customers.
  • Switch From A Flat View to a 3-D Isometric View - My first games were completely flat, as seen in the first illustration. I switched to a far, far nicer pseudo 3-D isometric view in 1998. It looks better, and it enables me to do more things with the game. (Like elevations.) But, over a decade later, I STILL get complaints about it. Lost souls, out in the wilderness, wanting me to return to a design I got completely fed up with in a previous century.
  • Switch From Hand-Drawn To Rendered Graphics - Oh, wow. There are a lot of people still angry about this change, made in Avernum 4 in 2005. My old graphics were hand-drawn instead of rendered, which made any sort of animation extremely painstaking and expensive. Using 3-D models to render creatures and terrain enables me to have a wider variety of much nicer icons without crushing my budget. But it changed the look of the games that people were used to, and a lot of customers never forgave me for it.
  • Removing the Need to Identify Magic Items - A smaller but highly instructive example. Once, when you got a magic item in one of my RPGs, you had to take it to a sage to get it identified. This was busy work, confused new players, diluted the excitement of collecting lewtz, and just wasn't fun. Dropping it was a total no-brainer. And yet people complained. Why? Oh, why?
  • Removed the Need to Carry Around Ammunition For Bows - This is a recent change, part of my desire to eliminate busywork. When you shoot a bow, you just shoot it. You don't need to shop for arrows. I can see why this would break immersion for people, but it seems a neutral change at worst. Not worth the angry complaints I've gotten.
Now the more contrary among you might be thinking, "Well, maybe people complain because your so-called improvements actually suck. How about that? Huh? Huh?" Not likely. Historically, when I made major augmentations to the engine, I've seen increases in sales. If the changes I made sucked, I would not still be in business. So give me the benefit of the doubt.

And I should point out one more thing. if someone doesn't like a change, well, you can't win an argument with a customer. If they don't like it, that's their right. They'll have to find their bliss somewhere else. It is your job to make sure that your changes bring in customers to replace the ones you lose.

So What Should I, a Game Developer, Do?

Forewarned is forearmed. You can't do anything about this phenomenon, but you should steel yourself for it so you don't suffer shock, self-doubt, and potentially catastrophic second guessing.

Be sure the changes you make are worthwhile. Be sure that your community of fans is warned about them, so that the culture shock is lessened. Be apologetic but firm to the people that complain about improvements. And be confident. Remember, evolution is necessary. Making the same people happy forever is a surefire route to stagnation and burnout.

One More Thing, For Those Who Are Angry At Me Changing Things

Despite what some people think, I am constitutionally incapable of writing the same game again and again. Writing more than three games without major changes in the engine or system or setting would drive me out of my mind. I need to change the system so that I can open up new design spaces. I need to change the graphics so I don't go loopy staring at the same icons day after day.

There are some people out there who claim they would be honestly happy if I just rewrote Exile, again and again, year after year. But I can't do that. Nobody can. You should always be looking for ways to evolve your work. It'll keep you from going crazy.


  1. Jeff, for me, the Exile games will always be superior to the Avernum. It's not the graphics or the sound, that means nothing to a game to me. Games for me are about story and GAMEPLAY. You have the story nailed, but each game you release seems to reduce the gameplay more and more, taking more choices away from the players. Exile had dual-weilding, poisoning weapons, a much larger arsenal of spell types, bashing weapons. These were good things. The newer Avernums went steps further and took away ammo types (Acid, Light and Life arrows were cool ideas, customizable damage for ranged was great). Even item lore was a choice the players could make, if they wanted to spend points in it or spend gold from sages. Having many diffrent ways to make a party creates great replayability. RPGs are an interactive story medium, but if you simplify the interactive part too much you may as well be reading a book. Bring back the customizability that Exile had into A6 and expand the meele/ranged move system you added with A5 (which was a step back in the right direction). Your fans will thank you for it.

  2. Superb post, Mr. Vogel. All of your points are well-made and I couldn't agree with you more on an intellectual level. On an emotional level, all I could think about was how much better Blades of Avernum looked than Avernum 4. :P

    So if it helps you out any, no, you can never win an argument with a customer, but, then, as a customer I can never win an argument with myself.

  3. I agree in general. I admit a lot of my complaints about newer games have to do with nostalgia, but there are two in particular I stand by:

    1. The original talking system. I can see why it may have been confusing to new players, but it was one thing that REALLY made Exile stand out from most other RPGs for me. Yes, it was sometimes hard to figure out what to ask, but by and large the immersion I got from feeling like I was actually TALKING to someone was totally worth it. To this day I've wished for a game to use the old talking system.

    2. Silly-cartoonish buttons that look like they were made in Painter. This isn't so much a problem anymore, but it felt like you took a huge step backwards in the original Geneforge/Avernum games. Which was weird because the rest of the graphics were clearly getting better. A related note is the fonts. The newer engine for Exile III/Blades of Exile had dialogue boxes that actually looked cool. The newer games have tended towards huge, blocklike letters that make me feel like I'm reading a children's book. These are very simple things that had a major impact on the overall feel of the game, and I never understood why you went backwards.

  4. You make some nice points. And it is clearly true that "If the change doesn't make someone angry, it didn't matter." It's pretty much tautological - change something that matters, add enough fans, and *some* will dislike it; you will hear about their dislike as they tend to be more vocal than the simply content.

    But, as someone who has played the Geneforge games (and paid for them, of course), there is quite little change between them (obviously there is more of a difference between them and your non-Geneforge games). Typically 'substantive' changes are a few new creatures and such. The main thing that changes is the plot, but even there, you have your tried-and-tested clichés like "the town of rebelling serviles", "the cave of evil spirits", "the gazer and the little area it takes for itself", etc. etc.

    I'm not saying your games are bad for this - I did play them all, and had a good time. All I'm saying is, aside from the "bitter, ironic laughter" you are filled with after hearing "you keep making the same game", perhaps also think about the element of truth in that.

    I love your games, and really the only two things I wish you would change so they were even better are (1) adding Linux support and (2) making the games more different from each other.

  5. Just goes to show you can't please everybody.

    ...Although I have to say, I prefer the look of hand-drawn, 2D graphics to isometric 3D graphics. Maybe that's just me being nostalgic.

  6. I miss Avernum's old keyboard-driven 'abcde' interface. And the REALLY oldschool 2-D Exile tileset. I was completely lost the first time I played Exile with the 'good' graphics. But for the love of God, please don't bring them back now ;)

  7. And you didn't even mention Nethergate, I guess because you already devoted that View From The Bottom column to it.

    But the gist of it is: Jeff gets tired of doing Exile standard-fantasy stuff, makes original game set in novel setting. Doesn't get great sales. Learns lesson and sticks with the usual fantasy fare from then on.

  8. You may have forgotten "Changing the Magic System," at least when applied to Exile vs. Avernum. That was, actually, one of my pet peeves with the Avernum series. I missed all the variations, but especially the odd spell options (like Simulacrum, Move Mountains, Quickfire, and other various barriers). Man, those were awesome.

    I do understand why it needed changing (ie: too long, complex, awkward, tedious for new players), but it kind of feels like the same sort of change D&D went through recently: the change from detailed and complex to simple and less utilitarian.

  9. I miss my dog. He used to sit at my feet when I played the fist Exile. Plus my mum would bring me tea and cookies when I was in front of the computer. These days playing Geneforge V I have to do that myself :(

  10. I've played the Exile series. Good stuff.

    But. I think it's time you stepped away from the style completely if not the entire rpg genre. You're putting all your developer eggs in one basket. That's never a good idea. As a developer myself I can tell you that my first project will always be held close to my heart, but that does not mean I am going to put it into everything I make from here on out.

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  12. I think it's worth categorizing the criticisms a bit; from the original post and the comments, I see three main areas: art/aesthetics, gameplay, and interface. While I totally agree that the first and second are truly at the discretion of the guy bringing creativity to bear on the project, I think interface criticism are usually valid.

    By extension of chann's comment, I mourn the incremental losses to the keyboard controls. When shopping for a keyboard, I used to consider a numeric keypad a prerequisite solely for my trips through Exile. With laptops gaining so much popularity recently, it makes sense to focus instead on mouse controls, but there's something to be said for keeping the option of different schemes.

    Now, in this particular example, core elements of the gameplay wind up at odds with keyboard control, notably character movement being a far less discrete action than the previous tile-based games. Given this, it's understandable that control schemes might fall by the wayside, because time is money, particularly for an independent like Jeff. Where possible, though, keeping interaction with the game as flexible as possible keeps a level of familiarity for long-time fans which can help open their minds to the important and exciting changes in aesthetics and gameplay.

  13. I've heard people say that all your games are basically the same thing over and over. In my experience, those people haven't actually played your games (not for more that a few minutes anyway).

    I think you've made just the right amount of change from game to game. Even though, as you say, some changes turned out to be not so good. It's a process of evolution.

    Overall, Each Geneforge game was better than the last. (Except possibly 2 was better than 3, the island/boat travel system was annoying, plus 2 had just awesome endings)

  14. I have never heard this complaint from another game developer, and I'll tell you why.
    Despite your comment in the last two paragraphs each game you write is very similar to the previous one (compared to the games of a lot of other developers). This is not necessarily a bad thing as you have previously said, recycling things from previous games gives you more time to work on other aspects of the game, however since you are "only writ[ing] the same game over and over again" when you change things it seems like a big thing. If the next game you made was completely different from the previous one people wouldn't be able to complain about changes you made because it's completely different.

    I'm not saying you should make completely different games and I've enjoyed the evolution of your games, but you can see how the problem arises.

  15. Actually, I like change. A lot of us like change. You forget that fans of Blades of Avernum would love some much needed changes. :)

  16. Your games just get better and better. Personally I think the changes you mentioned above just made the game more about the game content rather than silly little things like arrows that are a pain to keep track of. I genuinely look forward to what comes next. Thank you for all the games you've produced and keep them coming!
    The only complaint I will probably feel compelled to make will be when you get sick of making games or when you retire - whichever one comes first.

  17. Haha, this is funny because I've been pimping your games on message boards for years, but the last few years, I always run into someone saying "Oh, he destroyed everything with Avernum 4, I just can't play those games anymore." WAAAHH!!! To be honest, it was a bit of a shock to me, I always preferred the Avernum engines over the Geneforge ones, but come on! I even prefer flat to iso, but if things always stayed the same, they WOULD get just as boring to the players as to you, it just might take a bot longer.

    I see the same things going on with music. In underground metal, if a band tries to progress beyond writing the same album over and over, they get firestorms from their "tr00 fans" about how bad they suck now. I'm working on a new album right now, and I've already well-steeled myself for the inevitable backlash over being able to actually do what I originally wished I could do better.

    Oh yeah, Dual-Wield was AWESOME!! Bring it back! :D

  18. I must be really weird. I usually like the newest game best, even though Exile II will always have a special place in my heart.

  19. People like to make their opinions seem like moral announcements. As if it is "wrong" to not have arrow tracking. BT series kept track of arrow quivers, M&M did not. Whatever.

    What I'd like to hear from Jeff is: what was the real reason for remaking Exile I-III into Avernum I-III? I must admit I was a little annoyed that the same (albeit original) storyline was just being rehashed with a better graphics engine, instead of a completely new game and leaving Exile alone as a trilogy. When I saw Geneforge series I did feel better.

  20. Oh maan. I'm glad to hear others go through this.

    My 3rd game had graphics that looked like this:

    My 4th game had an actual budget so I could make graphics that looked like this:

    I've lost count of the number of emails I've received from people who feel that the loss of pixel art removes something "special" from the experience. Don't get me wrong, pixel art can be nice, but I never used it out of a love of the aesthetic. I just didn't have the budget for anything better.

    I am actually removing a much-tooted (but annoying) feature from the next Blackwell game. Your advice on how to handle the "fallout" is appreciated!

  21. Hi Jeff - As a long time fan of your games (one of the first games I truly got immersed in was the Exile III demo I received on a disk that collected a bunch of shareware titles, that was when I was about six or seven years old), I have to say that I am more fond of the top down Exile games than the isometric Geneforge/Avernum games. Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike the isometric ones, but there's something that warms my heart about the Exile games. Perhaps it's the fireballs.
    I still play the Exile trilogy (I am very glad I purchased that!) and BoE regularly, it's really an unparalleled experience. I feel that with the spell system, the conversation system and the odd little rectangular sprites, you have almost perfected that style of RPG. With BoE being open source now (great move, by the way! Having access to BoE on my laptop is a huge source of enjoyment for me), I think that the Exile style will never be lost.
    I will continue to play your latest games, perhaps even buy the full versions when my wallet is a little fatter than usual, as they are great titles - but Exile will always hold a special place in my heart.

    Getting a bit ramble-y here, so I'll cut this short. To summarize my feelings: I support your various experiments, changes and updates to your games, and though they may stray far from the classics that populated my childhood, I will appreciate and give them all a shot. I'm quite sure that holds true for a lot of us long-time fans.

  22. I've heard it said many times that 'players don't know what they want'. A condescending oversimplification, I think, but not entirely wrong. Some fans wouldn't be any more pleased with the same old thing than with your changes, whatever they may say or think (though perhaps others would).

    I'm a big fan of change, on principle. My favorite old classics aren't going away, and the new classics - which do come along from time to time - are very welcome.

  23. I've got a question I hope you can answer:

    How do you respond to fan complaints?

    As an indie game developer, you're in a unique position to have a one-to-one exchange with your fans that they wouldn't get out of a major game studio.

    So, in your experience, is it ever worth it to go into detail about the reasons behind your changes, or maybe play the PR guy and write a nice little "thanks for your input" missive? Or do you save yourself a lot of trouble by leaving them alone?

    As a young game designer, I'm really curious. I'm sure anyone who has published games has had to deal with this, but I've never heard any of them talk about it.

  24. The game I most disliked in all of the spiderweb games was Avernum 5. The linear nature and kind of disappointing story was a big disappointment for me, who's been playing since I was eight and I got my hands on Version 1 of Exile: Escape from the Pit. I like the open ended gaming.

    Geneforge 3 was worse, I think, but I didn't buy that one, so I could be wrong. Examining the resource forks suggests it had good endings, even if I would have hated getting there.

    On the other hand I think geneforge 5 was one of the greatest game purchases I've made since Baldur's Gate 2 (and there is, in my book, no higher honor than that.) Even my brother, who's always hated spiderweb software games, tried GF5 and pronounced it to be a genuinely good game.

  25. I can totally understand why most of those changes were made. Although, aesthetically speaking, I still prefer the Exile III style graphics to the relatively plain isometric graphics in the later series, I can definitely see where it has gameplay advantages. (And I'm not opposed to isometric - it looks very nice in many games, better sometimes than its more modern replacements - but in this particular case it feels like a downgrade.)

    Really, the only change you've ever made that I was genuinely disappointed with was the simplification of the RPG systems going from Exile to Nethergate and Avernum. As many people have commented, the significantly larger array of combat and character building options was nice. I'll live with it, but I wish it hadn't gone that way. Especially since the Avernum games are a distinct improvement in a number of other ways.

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